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LinkedIn and the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct

Carol Schiro Greenwald


  • The American Bar Association (ABA) has provided Model Rules of Professional Conduct (Model Rules), which are continually modified to keep them relevant to changing forms of practice. 
  • Model Rule 7.1 relates to truthful speech.
  • Model Rule 7.2 relates to referrals and recommendations.
  • None of the ABA Model Rules inhibit a lawyers’ use of LinkedIn for visibility and thought leadership; in fact, they suggest support for your presence on LinkedIn while reminding you of some cautions that protect your professionalism.
  • None of the ABA Model Rules inhibit a lawyers’ use of LinkedIn for visibility and thought leadership and in fact suggest support for your presence on LinkedIn while reminding you of some cautions that protect your professionalism.
LinkedIn and the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct
Wong Yu Liang via Getty Images

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The legal profession is self-regulated because lawyers need to be independent of any ties to others, be it the government, a client, or an outside personal interest. Lawyer conduct is regulated in the rules of professional conduct written by bar associations and approved by the appropriate judicial system.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has provided Model Rules of Professional Conduct (Model Rules), which are continually modified to keep them relevant to changing forms of practice. If all lawyers were bound only by the ABA’s Model Rules, it would be relatively simple to understand what lawyers can and cannot do.

But lawyers are also bound by the regulations of the states where they practice. Most states adopt the Model Rules and then embroider them with their own idiosyncratic admonitions and requirements. The states’ patchwork of rules creates a bewildering, sometimes conflicting set of ethical obligations.

Many of the basic rules apply to marketing on social media. Within the world of social media, LinkedIn is probably the most important professional/executive online networking site. To understand basic permissible and impermissible activities there, let’s look at three key Model Rules that impact your use of LinkedIn as a venue for finding clients and referrers. The rules are:

  • Model Rule 1.6: Confidentiality of Information
  • Model Rule 7.1: Communication Concerning a Lawyer’s Services
  • Model Rule 7.2: Communications Concerning a Lawyer’s Services: Specific Rules

Remember, your own state’s rules may differ from the Model Rules, so please read and be guided by your state’s rules of professional conduct and any relevant state ethics opinions.

Model Rule 1.6 and Confidentiality

The promise of confidentiality is a cornerstone of the trust required in a lawyer-client relationship. It assures clients that their lawyer will protect their confidences. LinkedIn is a marketing platform that helps participating lawyers build their brand, provide information about their capabilities, and develop relationships that lead to friendships, resources, and work. So, naturally, you want your profile to highlight accolades about your work or mention the names of your famous clients.

Rule 1.6 impacts those inclinations in five important ways:

  1. Client information. A lawyer flat out cannot share information about a current client matter, case, or confidences unless the client gives permission (Model Rule 1.6(a)).
  2. Stories. Marketing professionals often suggest the use of stories to engage the reader by illustrating the way you work and how what you do benefits your clients. To avoid infringing on confidences, you must fashion your stories as composites of similar situations with facts disguised so that no individual client could identify his or her specific story.
  3. Client names. Suppose you have a company page and want to highlight all the well-known clients you serve. Some clients may not want to share their legal activities. In order to list client names, you need written permission from each client contact or the appropriate person in each company.
  4. Published cases. Lawyers sometimes want to highlight published cases. They argue that published equates to “generally known.” In fact, most consumers don’t know some decisions are publicly available. As with client names, some clients prefer not to share their litigation history with the public, so ask first.
  5. Conversations with strangers. Often on LinkedIn you want to answer a question from someone or respond to something in your daily news feed. Go ahead and communicate, but remember to couch your answer in general terms. If you get deep into the detail, these people could believe you are their lawyer before you have gone through the required steps to make them official clients. If they think a lawyer-client relationship has been established, they might assume the conversation is covered by Model Rule 1.6.

Model Rule 7.1 and Truthful Speech

Model Rules 7.1 is the most important rule governing lawyer activities designed to influence people to refer or hire them. In 2018, the ABA reorganized the sections for greater clarity and eliminated most of the idiosyncratic detail. Model Rule 7.1(a) (Information about Legal Services) states:

A lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. A communication is false or misleading if it contains a material misrepresentation of fact or law or omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.

This is the basic rule governing all communications between a lawyer, a law firm, and the public. All other rules assume and build on this basic requirement for honesty and truthfulness. In order to stay within the parameters of Rule 7.1(a), avoid impossible-to-define words such as “better,” “best,” and “more” because they cannot be factually documented. One person’s best is another person’s average. Also, stay away from words such as “specialist” or “expert.” Substitute words such as “experienced,” “knowledgeable,” or “proficient.”

To avoid making “a false or misleading communication,” you need to explain your claims, qualifiers and all. For example, it would be misleading to say, “We win million-dollar verdicts” if there is no mention of lost cases, negotiated settlements, or cases that pay out less money. Misleading statements can create inaccurate expectations on the part of consumers. For example, seeing “million-dollar verdicts” may lead them to think they, too, will collect a million-dollar settlement.

To protect yourself from an inadvertent ethics violation, you could add a disclaimer paragraph at the end of your LinkedIn “About” section, for example, “In some states LinkedIn content is considered attorney advertising. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Communication with me through LinkedIn does not create an attorney-client confidential relationship.”

Model Rule 7.2 and Referrals and Recommendations

LinkedIn offers many kinds of opportunities for recommendations, a topic covered in Model Rule 7.2(b)(1)-(b)(5). Recommendation is defined as: “A communication [that] . . . endorses or vouches for a lawyer’s credentials, abilities, competence, character, or other professional qualities” (Comment [2]). On LinkedIn, when someone gives you a recommendation, you will see it first before it is posted on your profile. Be sure it is accurate. Edit out any misstatements or hyperbole. Don’t forget to check the language against your states’ requirements as well.

The intent of the rule also affects the “Skills and Endorsement” section of your LinkedIn profile. The implication of Model Rule 7.2(c) requires you to check this section on a regular basis. Make sure you are being endorsed for your actual skills. Remove all endorsements for skills you don’t have and all endorsements from people who don’t really know what you do.

According to Model Rule 7.2(d), “Any communication made under this Rule must include the name and contact information of at least one lawyer or law firm responsible for its content.” Most states load this simple declaration down with lots of filing and transmitting requirements. Here it is just a clean statement easily accomplished on LinkedIn where the profiled person is responsible for all content on his or her page.

A Final Thought

Ethics is a basic presumption embedded in the very notion of professionalism. As such, it is a brand advantage that helps you develop relationships with clients, with the public, and with potential colleagues, referrers, and clients.

Unless you live in a state that has adopted the ABA Model Rules word for word, you must also know and live by the rules of your state, or if you practice in multiple states, the rules of all those states. State rule details can complicate your life, but you must follow them.

None of the new ABA Model Rules inhibit your use of LinkedIn for visibility and thought leadership. In fact, by directly authorizing specific marketing and business development expenditures, the new Model Rules suggest support for your presence on LinkedIn while reminding you of some cautions that protect your professionalism.